“They’re very important, these comic book movies, because they’re our modern myths.”—Bryan Singer, SUPERMAN RETURNS: THE COMPLETE SHOOTING SCRIPT.
On this Comic Book Resources thread I found myself arguing against an overly rigid definition of myth. Though the argument was short-lived, it reminded me somewhat of the more epic-in-scope tsunamis in which I took part on The Board of the Terminally Dense, before said board descended into complete intellectual worthlessness. I wasn’t able to make headway against the reign of rigidity there or on CBR, but the experience moved me to write a little on the question, “What is myth?”
As I’ve emphasized in earlier essays, those who claim flatly “superheroes aren’t myths” aren’t concerned with the applicability of myths to literature generally, as I am. They simply wish to deprive the superhero genre of any such defense in order to knock the props out from its supporters, who range from the “insider” fans who support the comic books themselves to the “outsider” professionals like Singer, seeking to ratify the translation of comic-book fantasies into those of the cinema.
One of the hoariest anti-myth arguments depends upon defining myth in a functionalist manner. In this definition a myth can only be a particular type of story, designed to provide stories of the gods or of archaic rituals, all of which have one purpose: to lend coherence to human tribes and societies. A common corollary to this argument is that myths must be absolutely believed by those societies. This imputation of complete and unwavering belief on the part of ancient societies sets myth apart from any form of literature, in which it's assumed that no one invests "belief." This argument denies mythicity even those forms of literature that transmitted, in literary form, archaic myth-narratives otherwise lost to moderns, such as one finds in the works of Homer and Firdausi.
I myself have distinguished between religious myths and literary myths in this essay, defining the former as “closed rituals” and the latter as “open rituals.” In the latter form, the author is often allowed the freedom to invent new stories from canonical myths, as when Euripides rewrote the sequence of events in the "labors of Hercules" to fit his play HERACLES. Religious myths are thought of as “closed” by their more stern-minded proponents, who deny that they possess truth if they are changed. But the senselessness of this attitude is shown in that many religious myths do change both their form and substance over time without losing their social function and effectiveness.
The question of “belief” isn’t one that deserves much refutation, in that no one can prove how deeply or intensely archaic societies believed in their societal myths. Joseph Campbell devoted the chapter “The Lesson of the Mask” in PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY to the fallacy of absolute belief, demonstrating that even for ancient societies belief is a “game” first and foremost, and that religious literalism is mere “vulgarization” that goes against the essence of what myth is and what myth can do.
Once it is evident that the dividing-line between religious myths and literary myths is real only insofar as individuals “believe” in the distinction, one may be open to an interdisciplinary approach like that of Ernst Cassirer, who devoted his book MYTHICAL THOUGHT to the proposition that “mythical thinking” was a fundamental proclivity of humankind that was not confined those narratives which nominalists choose to call “myths.” In essence “mythical thinking” is the counterpoint to what Cassirer calls variously “empirical” or “theoretical” thought.
In his opening chapter “Mythical Consciousness” Cassirer advances this oppositional argument. After advancing the notion that both empirical thought and mythical thought have their own definitions of “causality” and of the nature of the perceived “object,” Cassirer says:
“According to Kant the principle of causality is a synthetic principle which enables us to spell out phenomena and so read them as experience. But this causal synthesis… involves a very specific analysis…. It is a fundamental flaw in Hume’s psychology and his psychological critique of the concept of causality that he does not sufficiently recognize this analytical function… Mere local or temporal contiguity is transformed into causality by a simple mechanism of ‘association.’ But in truth, scientific knowledge gains its causal concepts and judgments through an exactly opposite process.”
That process, which depends on singling out “a specific factor in a total complex as a ‘condition,’ is alien to mythical thinking.” Myth actually does depend on laws of association rather than analytical proof: “Animals which appear in a certain season are, for example, commonly looked upon as the bringers, the cause of this season; for the mythical view, it is the swallow that makes the summer.” Thus, Cassirer concludes: “Hume, in attempting to analyze the causal judgment of science, rather reveald a source of all mythical explanations of the world.”
To be sure, Cassirer does not address in this book the provenance of the mythical imagination in literature. He does address in general terms the transition from “the mythicial image world and the world of religious meaning to the sphere of art and artistic expression.” But it seems plain to me that literature functions far more through “association” than through “analysis,” and that it depends just as much as myth on creating “networks of fantastically arbitrary relations,” a phrase borrowed by Cassirer from one Hermann Oldenberg.
If one disproves the idea that myth can only be defined through its association with ratifying social structures, as I believe that I have, one is free to understand its essence as being true to what I called earlier “the free flow of associations,” a.k.a. “symbolic complexity,” and to see how it manifests in literature as readily as in religious myths or in pedagogical folklore.
Cassirer does not focus great attention to the imaginative process that spawns the “networks of arbitrary relations,” as does Campbell, and neither of them explicitly makes my point that such complexity arises as a “super-functional” quality from narrative tropes that, by themselves, are merely “functional.” In this I take added influences from Northrop Frye and from Vladimir Propp, and I aver that their theories participate in an interrelated “network” of theories whose joint effect is to diminish the dogmatic stance of sociologically-oriented functionalism.